Kestrel’s fighting ability had grown exponentially. When he had first recovered from his injuries and Aris had decided to take responsibility for his training, the boy had been as green as the Spruce trees that dotted the foothills that surrounded them. Now he was expertly dodging the series of attacks that Aris was rushing him with.
Kestrel’s visual acuity amazed Aris. He was seeing the smallest of openings in the General’s guard and was exploiting them with the skill of a soldier that had been trained in battle for years. Kestrel was still a long way from coming near to Aris’ level with the metalvine, but still he was keeping him on his toes. He surprised the General by catching his metalvine mid-swing and disarming him. He followed up with a knee that barely grazed the General as he broke contact.
“That was a nice move,” Aris laughed as he danced back from Kestrel. “You almost had me there. Too bad that’s the best you’ll do. You’ve still got a long way to go before you can come close to touching me.”
Kestrel grinned. What felt like just a few days ago, he would’ve taken the bait and rushed in to attack Aris. Now he knew better than to be caught up in the trash talk. Living in a barracks with elite guard trainees had inoculated Kestrel to boasting.
He preferred silence when he fought, but he saw the utility behind the talk. If you got your opponent angry, you would have them off-balance, and an opponent without without equilibrium —physically or emotionally— was easily put down.
Kestrel had faced the worst talk a man could imagine during his life spent in the streets. He wouldn’t be distracted by trash-talking anymore.
He was better than that, and he was eternally grateful to Aris for showing him that.
Kestrel stayed back and carefully studied Aris’ movements. Even disarmed, the older man was lethal. He had learned very quickly to never underestimate General Ravenscroft. He remembered some of their first sparring sessions and how easily Aris had thrown him through the air and rag-dolled him and he was taking it easily on him. Aris barely held back anymore.
Aris shifted his stance.
Kestrel saw what he’d been looking for. Aris kept a tight defensive shell, but Kestrel found the opening that he’d been looking for.
Every couple of breaths Aris’ guard would loosen and his elbows would pull outward. Kestrel could exploit that. He doubted that Aris even knew he was doing it. It was such a small movement that it had taken nearly five minutes for him to catch it, but the General was leaving himself open for an attack.
Kestrel waited. The General took a step back to breath. There it was again. It was all that Kestrel needed to see so he stepped into a back-handed spinning attack with the metalvine. Aris dodged it easily, but as he did so, his guard split even further and Kestrel’s rear foot shifted and shot out and led him into a spinning back kick aimed at Aris’ open chest.
Kestrel had taken the bait.
He had noticed the young man’s tendency towards counter-fighting and had set the trap only a minute into their sparring session. With the metalvines Kestrel hadn’t seen the opening, but when he’d disarmed the General, he’d quickly caught on and held back until the perfect opportunity to attack. Aris, though, had been waiting with his own counter and he easily caught Kestrel’s kick and scooped the young man’s foot to his outside then kicked his supporting leg out from under him. Kestrel fell to the ground in a heap.
“Emperors balls!” Kestrel cursed, “I thought that I had you that time! How long were you baiting me for?” he asked.
Aris grinned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Kestrel laughed. “Don’t lie to me. That wasn’t luck. It was skill. I’m guessing you set it up the moment you started opening your guard. I should’ve seen it. I feel like an idiot for missing it.”
“Don’t worry about that. You hooked onto my lure about a minute before I thought you would. You've grown. When you first started, you wouldn’t have caught the tell for the whole session. Now get up.”
Kestrel grunted and lifted his hand towards Aris’ outstretched one. He had hoped that Aris would lest him rest on the loosely packed dirt of the sparring field for a longer period of time, but the General had no mercy on his student.
“Don’t think that you can rest on me like that,” Aris laughed when he saw Kestrel’s mischievous grin.
He had taught all the cadets that passed through the small barracks his estate housed and loved each of them. They were like his younger brothers. Aris had tried to keep Kestrel at an arms length, but despite himself he had come to care for the young man. He was quick becoming like a son to him. “If you rest in a real battle, you’ll end up dead,” he said.
Kestrel nodded. He didn’t need to be told twice. He’d seen throats slit when one was gloating in victory. In the streets you were only ever safe when you made sure to beat your opponent to a point where they couldn’t fight anymore. Even then, you were never truly safe. Even in death, one had to worry about vengeance from a loved one, or worse yet, one to whom money was owed.
Kestrel scooped up Aris’ metalvine that he’d dropped when he had been thrown and casually tossed it to the older man.
He was surprised when Aris didn't try to catch the weapon, but rather closed the distance between them with a lightning fast pendulum step. Before Kestrel knew what was happening Aris had chambered his lead leg and thrust at him with a sidekick that could be lethal if it landed flush.
Kestrel sucked in his stomach at the last second and the kick missed by a hairs width. As the foot harmlessly retracted Kestrel took a pivoting step towards his right and was able to land a solid check hook on the General.
Kestrel didn’t have time to feel the thrill of getting such a solid hit on Aris before he found himself being wrenched to the ground where the older soldier quickly manipulated his joints to a point where Kestrel was crying for mercy.
“Serves you right for finally hitting me,” Aris laughed as Kestrel rubbed his hyperextended elbow.
“How does it feel to be old?” Kestrel shot back. “Too old to avoid a light punch from an amateur,” he had in fact, accidentally hit Aris twice as hard as he intended to, but he wasn’t going to let the General know that.
“How does it feel to be manhandled by such an ancient creature?” Aris grinned at Kestrel who was lugging himself back onto his feet.
“Yeah,” Aris echoed the sentiment with a wolfish grin.
The pair continued to spar for ten more minutes after Kestrel’s hook and the younger man was only able to land one more substantial blow on the General. A low kick that had buckled Aris’ leg and Kestrel was sure would leave a bruise.
Aris had given Kestrel trouble for his blow. He poked fun at Kestrel, telling him if he was forced to retire from an injury, it was because of him and he expected Kestrel to take full financial responsibility for him and the family.
Kestrel laughed at Aris’ joke, but part of him wondered what the older man thought of his connection with his niece. Would Aris approve of Kestrel’s feelings for Sephira or would he kill him if he found out about his growing attraction to his niece?
Try as he might to banish her from his thoughts, she always came to the forefront of his mind.
Aris in turn was in turmoil while he watched Kestrel. He wanted to tell the young man that Cillia hadn’t been killed in the attack that had very nearly taken Kestrel’s own life, but could he do that to Kestrel?
He could see a sense of peace in the young man’s eyes that hadn't been there before. For the first time in Kestrel’s life, he felt that he belonged somewhere. Was it fair to rip open that scab on someone who had had such a hard life? Was it fair to raise Kestrel’s hopes only to possibly dash them later?
Aris’ gut roiled at the thought.
He was already keeping so much from his wife, and now was withholding information on the only person that Kestrel had ever loved from him.
Aris hated it.
He could manipulate and speak in veiled language to lead people to conclusions like he’d played the political game for ages, but Aris was an honest man, and lying to those he loved even if only by omission chaffed him. His conscious was burning him alive. He might not be able to tell his wife of the secrets that shrouded him now, but he could tell Kestrel.
He owed him that.
“She’s still alive,” he said.
“What?” Kestrel asked, absentmindedly.
“She’s still alive,” Aris said louder.
“What do you mean?” Kestrel asked, his eyebrows knitted in confusion. “Who’s still alive?”
“Cillia is alive.”
The words pierced Kestrel. The general had to be lying to him. He’d seen the metalvine crashing against her tiny skull. Even now he could still see the blood spraying in a mist, puddling from her head as her body lay crumpled on the ground. She was dead. She had to be dead.
“Don’t you lie to me,” Kestrel’s voice cracked. “Don’t you dare lie to me.”
Aris grabbed Kestrel’s shoulder and turned the young man so he was staring him in the eyes.
They pierced Kestrel.
“Cillia is still alive.”
He fell to his knees.